May 8, 2012
Dark Shadows and 70's horror camp
Dark Shadows, the TV show, was a daily afternoon soap that premiered in 1966 just as The Munsters and The Addams Family were ending. This period was clearly the heyday of pulpy goth television, and the lovably creepy families from all three shows have lived on through multiple reincarnations, which I sort of doubt we're going to see with, say, The Vampire Diaries 40 years from now.
I went to see Tim Burton's Dark Shadows movie, which is a nostalgic tribute to a TV show that Burton and Johnny Depp obviously loved when they were growing up. But the sad reality of Tim Burton these days is that he doesn't make very good movies anymore (possible exception: Sweeney Todd), and this one is an incoherent mess.
The style is cool (it's set in 1972,) and the gothier he goes with the story, characters, and design, the better. Tim Burton is great when he's dark. But several characters and entire plotlines felt tacked on and arbitrary, like the only reason he included them in the movie was that they were in the TV show. It doesn't hang together as a cohesive movie and probably would have been better if he'd made an episodic TV show, or series of vignettes about flamboyant Victorian vampire Johnny Depp, his creepy and possibly supernatural modern-day family, and Eva Green's cleavage.
The best thing about this movie is that it prompted revisiting of the half-hour daily TV show, which ran from 1966-71 for an astounding 1,225 episodes and was one of the most popular daytime soaps during its run. The Times has a wonderful article about it (the most repeated word in the piece is "weird".) It turns out that the show's creator, Dan Curtis, didn't set out to make a supernatural soap, he just started throwing in ghosts and vampires to chase ratings, much like today's soaps keep audiences guessing with evil twins, amnesia, or resurrections from the dead. Barnabas Collins, the Johnny Depp character, didn't even show up until 200 episodes in! Here's an excerpt from the Times:
The show eventually included "a staggering number of witches, warlocks, doppelgängers, mad scientists, werewolves, and, of course, ghosts," which Tim Burton tried to recreate by introducing a seemingly random slate of supernatural characters at odd moments in the movie. It feels like an arbitrary, disjointed mess, but even if the movie doesn't work, I can appreciate the homage to what sounds like a delightfully bizarre show.
A box set of the entire 5 season run of Dark Shadows is being released on DVD in July, packaged in an adorable coffin, for $420. A staggering 131 discs! That's a lot of vamping. You can also watch 160 episodes on Netflix streaming and catch some of the show's alleged line flubs and crew members visible on screen.
Here's a clip from the TV show from the episode when the Barnabas character is introduced. It's not as hammy as it could have been, but there's some excellent suspense in delaying the first time we see the face of Jonathan Frid.
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